Posted: Aug. 24, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Only U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. could get away with literally dropping by the Sussex County Democratic Jamboree, arriving Saturday evening in a helicopter in an entrance fit for the presidential candidate he is not, a jarring contrast to what is normally a sleepy summertime rite of sand dunes and sandals at Cape Henlopen State Park.

Biden touched down with a spray of grit, stirred up by the flapping whirly blades, and strode with aviator sunglasses in place onto the pavilion where Democrats near the landing site were brushing off a sand bath that appeared to leave them more amused than anything. They were at the beach, after all, and getting sand-blasted by Joe Biden was something to tell the grandchildren.

This arrival was not in the same league as President George W. Bush in a flight suit roaring onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, but it did wow the crowd. Biden got a rock-star welcome with people applauding, cameras flashing and clusters of Democrats surrounding him.

"I'd like to introduce someone who just likes to drop in on a party," said Charlotte Anderson, the Democratic chairwoman for the 38th Representative District, which drew the assignment of staging the event this year. She called Biden "our ambassador to the world."

Until two weeks ago, there was a sense that Biden, a six-term senator who knows where his roots are, could choose the annual jamboree to declare for the Democratic presidential nomination, which would have expanded the field to 10 candidates wanting to run against Bush in 2004.

Then Biden released a statement on Aug. 11 to say in low-key fashion that he would not enter the race. Heaven knows how many tickets the Sussex Democrats could have sold otherwise beyond the 400 or so they did at $10 each.

Instead, the jamboree became Biden's first major public appearance since he announced his decision not to run, so he used it to amplify why. "I feel like I owe you an explanation," he said.

In addition, in an interview after he spoke, Biden said he was leaning toward backing U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and decorated Vietnam War veteran, who is scheduled to declare his candidacy on Sept. 2 for the nomination. Biden also said his own decision to stay out of the race was final.

He also explained the helicopter. He told the gathering that he came to the jamboree from a family vacation in New Jersey and was due in Washington that evening to be ready for an early-morning taping of "Meet the Press" on Sunday on NBC, so the network provided the helicopter to eliminate the lengthy driving.

Actually, Biden had to talk a lot faster to the Sussex County crowd to explain the New Jersey vacation -- he has a brother with a beach house there, so it was free -- than the helicopter.

While Biden did not say publicly how close he had come to running, he really was ready to go. In the interview, he said he had been poised to raise $2.5 million by Labor Day in seed money and also had assembled the core of his campaign.

Naturally his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who has overseen every campaign since the first election for New Castle County Council in 1970, would have been there again, and so would Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, once his chief aide and also a former Democratic national committeeman.

Then there were the national players. They included: Ron Klain, the ex-chief of staff for Vice President Albert Gore Jr.; David Wilhelm, the national campaign manager for Clinton-Gore in 1992; Tom Donilon, the deputy campaign manager for the 1984 Mondale presidential campaign and a senior official in the State Department for the Clinton administration; Larry Rasky, a communications specialist who worked on Biden's 1988 presidential campaign; and Mark Gitenstein, a Washington lawyer. Klain, Donilon and Gitenstein are all alumni of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Biden chaired.

Still, he stayed out. "My instincts tell me that the best way for me to work to enhance America's national security and to fight for economic security for the middle class is to remain in the United States Senate," he said in his statement.

Biden, now 60, has been regarded seriously as a potential White House contender since 1984. That year he came close to running -- there was an airplane waiting at Christmastime 1983 at the New Castle County Airport to take him to New Hampshire to file for the first primary -- but he let it go by.

Four years later, he did enter the race, but his campaign collapsed under a drumbeat of charges involving plagiarism and resume padding and also a display of temper in New Hampshire. Biden bailed, afraid that what he called "the essence of Joe Biden" was being obscured and set out to redeem his reputation.

These days Biden, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when his party was in the majority, is regarded as a leading Democrat on international affairs, a mainstay of the political talk shows, and his stature and his interest nearly propelled him into the race, along with his concern about the economy.

While Biden said he has been trying "very, very hard to work with this president," he believes the Bush administration needs to build more support among other nations and at home and to explain what is at stake.

"No foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people," Biden told the jamboree.

"If we fail, the Middle East is gone. The whole peace process, forget about it. At least two Arab governments will fall in the next two years. There will be economic chaos. We've got to do this right. We've got to get this done. . . .

"We have a chance to remake the world. We're blowing it because of naked pride and this notion that we don't need anybody else. We are the indispensable nation, but that does not mean we should do it alone."

If policy nearly brought Biden into the race, politics and personal considerations kept him out. He called his chances "too much of a long shot" and said his wife Jill was against it.

"It would be like parachuting in," Biden said. "Jill was not willing to do that now. She said, 'Why don't you wait until next time and just march in? I'm tired of parachuting in.'"

Biden is out of the race but not necessarily on the sidelines, as his continuing appearances on television programs like "Meet the Press" show. Nor has he ruled out a future presidential candidacy.

Biden also is not stifling speculation that he could be interested in serving as secretary of state if the Democrats win the White House. "How do you say no to that? But I don't anticipate that at all," he said.

Biden said he would have to decide whether he could be more effective as a secretary of state or as a senator. This time around, he already has decided he is more effective as a senator than as a presidential candidate.